If you have seen the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” about Frenchman Philippe Petite’s high-wire walk across the Twin Towers in 1974, you might be under the assumption that you don’t need to see “The Walk.”
By Noah Gittell
If you have seen the Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” about Frenchman Philippe Petite’s high-wire walk across the Twin Towers in 1974, you might be under the assumption that you don’t need to see “The Walk.” After all, the barely-fictionalized film hits all the same beats. We meet Petit as a young man with a dream. He travels from Paris to New York, plans for his gravity-defying walk with all of the precision of high espionage, and eventually pulls off the incredible.
But you haven’t seen Robert Zemeckis direct this story before, and what a difference it makes. The legendary director has pushed the boundaries of visual effects in recent years, with a specialty in reflecting man’s obsession with the sky and the potential to fall from it. He has made two movies with plane crashes (“Cast Away” and “Flight”), as well as one with flying cars (“Back to the Future Part II”). But the final sequence in “The Walk” reaches another pinnacle. For both character and director, years of visionary planning and on-the-ground work lead up to a transcendent moment that awes and inspires. It’s the kind of scene that almost justifies the need for cinema itself (which is to say, it must be seen on the biggest screen possible and in 3D).
It’s enough to forgive the ho-hum 90 minutes of narrative that precedes it. Zemeckis is a whiz with spectacle — story and characterization seem less important to him, but the audience needs them just as much.
“The Walk” depicts Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) early years as something of a twee fairy tale. The young wirewalker makes his living in bohemian Paris as a busker, juggling, miming, and mugging his way through the city streets. It’s there that he meets Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), his first love and, more importantly, first accomplice. Together, in his dingy basement apartment, they romance each other and plan his “perfect work of art.”
The plan, of course, eventually brings them to New York City, where “The Walk” morphs into a pretty good heist movie. Petit lures in a few more accomplices (on his magnetism alone), and the group sets out gathering intelligence on the Twin Towers, which are still being constructed. During these sequences, the film feels effortless and nimble, but they can’t help but evoke the tragedy that is staring us in the face the entire time. The ways that Petit is able to easily circumnavigate the Towers’ security recalls both an era in which Americans were not so nervous about trespassing at famous landmarks, as well as the secret plans of another group of rebels whose horrifying work culminated at the World Trade Center 28 years later.
This subtext never threatens to take down Zemeckis’ whimsical tale, in part because he makes it his own. Reminding viewers that Petit’s walk turned public sentiment in favor of the Towers (which, while under construction, were still controversial), it feels as if the director himself is trying something similar. “The Walk” succeeds in reclaiming the image of the World Trade Center, which reminds most Americans only of pain and trauma, for something more positive.
And when Petit is on that wire, it’s impossible to see it as anything else. With his expert use of CGI (computer-generated imagery), Zemeckis’ camera is able to float freely above, beside, and below the lone walker, who spends nearly an hour on the wire. There is little conflict and tension during these scenes, only pure transcendence. Audience members with a fear of heights might see it as a kind of immersion therapy, and perhaps an unpleasant one (rumor has it that some audience members have had to leave the theater during these sequences). But for the rest of us, it’s a rare pleasure at the movies, reminding us — both through story and form — of the beauty humans are capable of achieving.
My Rating: See it in the Theater